The importance of emotional regulation
The neuropsychologist’s work, by its nature, is imbued with affectivity. Although the main objective of the interventions is to improve the cognitive functioning of patients, their emotions are present at all times. The following lines will serve to introduce us to the fundamental concepts of the study of emotional regulation in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
The study of emotions in neuropsychology
Until recently, emotions were considered subjective individual experiences, so that their experimental study seemed impossible. Moreover, the Cartesian philosophical tradition had relegated emotions to the realm of the passions, assuming that they were detrimental to reason. This thought persisted until the publication of “Descartes’ Error” (1994). In it, A. Damasio revisits the famous case of Phineas Gage, concluding that there is no reason without emotion. This fact promoted an affective revolution in cognitive psychology, which until then had been interested only in the study of “cold” cognitive processes.
In recent decades, affective neurosciences have made important discoveries about the cognition-emotion interface. These findings have revealed that emotions intervene in the modulation of cognitive processes such as attention (e.g., by orienting or amplifying attention towards stimuli evaluated as pleasant by the individual), memory (e.g., by favoring the consolidation of information with emotional valence and, thus, participating in the learning process) and decision making (e.g., by facilitating decision-making on the basis of positive or negative emotions previously experienced in analogous situations). The latter is usually assessed with the “risk-benefit” paradigm of the Iowa Gambling Task or “gambling game” that has led to some adaptations for incorporation in Spanish-language neuropsychological assessment batteries, as is the case of the BANFE-2 (2014).
Given the importance of emotions in the modulation of cognitive processes, it is important to provide a definition of them that accounts for their multicomponential nature.
What are emotions?
Generally, when emotions are defined, only some of their constituent elements are stated, such as changes in the organism, facial expression or subjective feeling. Klaus Scherer defines them as “a set of episodic variations that occur in different components of the organism in response to an event evaluated as relevant by the organism” (p. 10).
Multicomponential view of emotion
The multicomponential view of emotion allows us to highlight the following aspects:
First, emotions are temporary as they tend to have a relatively short duration, unlike feelings whose duration extends over a longer period of time.
Second, an emotional episode provokes physiological variations (e.g., increase in heart rate), in motor expression (e.g., facial expression accompanying the emotion), in the tendency to act (e.g., desire to flee or fight), in cognitive evaluation (e.g., evaluating the stimulus as potentially dangerous) and in subjective feeling (e.g., experiencing fear).
Third, emotion is primarily intended to cope with emergency situations. As such, it prepares the body for action, orients attention to that which must be apprehended and remembered, and guides people’s decisions and actions (Ebner and Fischer, 2014).
Fourth, the onset of an emotional episode is marked by the cognitive evaluation (appraisal) of the stimulus perceived by the organism. This can be external (e.g., a rabid dog in the middle of the sidewalk) or internal (e.g., the memory of being attacked by a dog in the past), with the response varying from person to person. Indeed, some individuals will judge the memory of the incident as extremely aversive and unpleasant, while others may judge it as a less challenging.
When coupled with perception and with thought, emotion involves for the individual a perceptual, somatosensory, and motor re-experiencing of the circumstances in which a cognition was acquired (“embodied theories of emotion,” see Niedenthal, 2007), and whose intensity and valence can be regulated by the subject.
What does emotional regulation imply?
Because of their social experiences, human beings deploy strategies that allow them to regulate their emotions. For example, when an individual is sad and must nevertheless engage in an activity with a positive face, or when he is happy because he has just been promoted but must conceal his joy so as not to offend his colleague who did not receive the promotion.
For Gross (1998), emotion regulation is a process through which individuals are able to influence the nature of their emotions, the time and the way they experience them. This definition accounts for the nature of the influence exerted in order to maintain, increase or attenuate the intensity of the emotion, as well as to modify its hedonic valence (pleasantness, unpleasantness).
The four most studied types of emotional regulation are the attenuation of unpleasant emotions, the maintenance or increase of pleasant emotions, the increase of unpleasant emotions and the attenuation or suppression of pleasant emotions (Mikolajczak & Desseilles, 2012).
These processes are an adaptive response in the service of personal goals, satisfaction of affective needs, maintenance of balance and well-being, which promotes mental health. They can be automatic (unconscious) or controlled (conscious), intrinsic or extrinsic and can be directed to the antecedents of the emotional response (i.e. before the response tendency) or to one of the components of the emotional reaction itself (i.e. expressive, cognitive or physiological) after it has manifested itself.
What are the strategies of emotional regulation?
Gross’s (1988) model for emotional regulation processes accounts for five distinct sequences. The first four are intrinsic (i.e., the subject tends to alter his or her own emotions) and are manifested before the emotional reaction. However, the fifth is extrinsic (i.e., it aims to influence those of others) and manifests itself throughout the emotional experience.
- Situation selection: avoiding or seeking a situation.
- Situation modification: attempting to modify the situation to influence its emotional impact.
- Attentional deployment: maintaining attention, distraction or concentration.
- Cognitive change: re-evaluation of information to perceive it as increased or decreased.
- Modulation of the emotional response: accentuating or minimizing any of the three components of the emotional reaction previously described.
More precisely, three emotional regulation strategies have been identified: cognitive reappraisal, emotion acceptance and expressive suppression; their deployment in a given situation would depend on environmental conditions, individual experiences and temperamental predispositions of individuals (Naranjo-Vila, Gallardo-Salce, & Zepeda-Santibáñez, 2010).
What are the neural correlates of cognitive reappraisal?
Neuroimaging has made it possible to identify the brain areas involved in emotional experiences, as in the case of cognitive reappraisal. These areas are the prefrontal cortex and other subcortical structures, in particular the amygdala.
The amygdala is responsible for coordinating the individual’s cortical activation and attention to relevant, novel or ambiguous stimuli in order to optimize their sensory and perceptual processing. It is connected to the prefrontal cortex which, being the main emotion control center, is involved in the processing of external information and receives information about internal mental states such as motivation or emotions. It also plays a fundamental role in voluntary (intrinsic) emotional regulation (Beauregard, Levesque and Paquette, 2004).
Moreover, because of its bidirectional connections with the amygdala, prefrontal cortex activity can control and inhibit amygdala activity and have an impact on emotional state (Ochsner & Gross, in Vieillard & Harm, 2014), which corresponds to the appraisal process.
In summary, it can be stated that findings in cognitive psychology of emotions and affective neurosciences have allowed progress from parceled conceptions of emotional experience towards a multicomponential definition that promoted the study of cognitive processes involved in emotional experiences. One example is emotional regulation, which shows that individuals have the capacity to modify their emotional experience both in intensity and valence.
Within the strategies of emotional regulation, one of the most studied has been cognitive reappraisal. This strategy shows that a person, using the bidirectional connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, can influence their emotional states by re-signifying the stimuli they perceive (similar to what occurs in cognitive restructuring). To this end, training the cognitive functions involved in it may be favorable.
Beauregard, M., Levesque, J., & Paquette, V. (2004). Neural basis of conscious and voluntary self-regulation of emotion. En M. Beauregard (Ed.), Consciousness, Emotional Self-Regulation and the Brain (pp. 163-194). Montreal: Johns Benjamins Publishing Company.
Ebner, N. y Fischer, H. (2014). Emotion and aging: evidence from brain and behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (996).
Harm, J., Vieillard, S., & Didierjean, A. (2014). Using humor as an extrinsic source of emotion regulation in young and older adults. The Quaternaly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Mikolajczak, M. & Desseilles, M. (Coord.) (2012). Traité de régulation des émotions [Treatise on the regulation of emotions]. Bruselas: De Boeck Supérieur.
Naranjo-Vila C., Gallardo-Salce, M. & Zepeda-Santibáñez, M. (2010). Estilo afectivo y estilos de personalidad internamente orientados (Inward) y externamente orientados (Outward): modelo de estilos emocionales de personalidad [Affective style and internally oriented (Inward) and externally oriented (Outward) personality styles: emotional personality styles model]. Revista chilena de neuropsiquiatría, 48 (4), 344 – 355.
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